Home > Uncategorized > Jean de La Bruyère: And self-slaughtering man dares call animals brutes

Jean de La Bruyère: And self-slaughtering man dares call animals brutes


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace

La Bruyère on the lust for war


Jean de La Bruyère
From Characters
Translated by Henri van Laun

Ye little men, only six feet high, or at most seven, who, as soon as you have reached eight feet, are to be seen for money in booths at the fairs, as giants and wonders; who, without blushing, give yourselves the titles of “highnesses” and “eminences,” which is the utmost that can be granted to those mountain-tops so near the sky that they see the clouds form underneath them; ye haughty, vain-glorious animals who despise all other creatures, and who cannot even be compared to an elephant or a whale, draw near, ye men, and answer Democritus. Do you not commonly speak of “hungry wolves, furious lions, and mischievous monkeys?” Pray, who are you? “Man is a rational creature” is continually dinned in my ears. Who gave you this appellation? Did the wolves, or the lions, or the monkeys do so, or did you take it yourselves? It is already very ridiculous that you should bestow on animals, your fellow-creatures, all the bad epithets, and take the best for yourselves; leave it to them to give names, and you will see that they will not forget themselves, and how you will be treated. I do not mention, O men, your frivolities, your follies and caprices, which place you lower than the mole or the tortoise, who wisely move along quietly and follow invariably their own natural instinct; but listen to me for a moment: You say of a goshawk if it be very swift-winged and swoops well down on a partridge, that it is a good bird; of a greyhound following a hare very close and catching it, that it is a first-rate dog; it is also quite right that you should say of a man who hunts the wild boar, brings it to bay, walks up to it and kills it with a spear, that he is a courageous man. But if you see two dogs barking at each other, provoke, bite, and tear one another to pieces, you say they are foolish creatures, and take a stick to part them. If any one should come and tell you that all the cats of a large country met in a plain in their thousands and tens of thousands, and that after they had squalled to their heartsʼ content they had fallen upon each other tooth and nail; that about ten thousand of them had been left dead on the spot and infected the air for ten leagues round with their evil-smelling carcasses; would you not say that it was the most disgraceful row you ever heard? And if the wolves acted in the same way, what a butchery would there be, and what howls would be heard! Now, if these two kind of animals were to tell you they love glory, would you come to the conclusion that this glory consists in their meeting together in such a way to destroy and annihilate their own species; and if you have come to such a conclusion, would you not laugh heartily at the folly of these poor animals? Like rational creatures, and to distinguish yourselves from those which only make use of their teeth and claws, you have invented spears, pikes, darts, sabres, and scimitars, and, in my opinion, very judiciously; for what could you have done to one another merely with your hands, except tearing your hair, scratching your faces, and, at best, gouging one anotherʼs eyes out; whilst now you are provided with convenient instruments for making large wounds and for letting out the utmost drop of your blood, without there being any fear of your remaining alive? But as you grow more rational from year to year, you have greatly improved the old fashion of destroying yourselves; you use certain little globes which kill at once, if they but hit you on the head or chest; you have other globes, heavier and more massive, which cleverly cut you in two or disembowel you, without counting those falling on your roof, breaking through the floors from the garret to the cellar, which they destroy, and blowing up your wife who is lying-in, and the child, the nurse, and the house as well. And yet this is glory, which delights in all this hurly-burly and mighty hubbub! You have also defensive arms, and according to the rules and regulations, when waging war, you should put on a suit of iron, no doubt a pretty becoming dress, which always puts me in mind of those four famous fleas, formerly shown by a cunning artist, a quack, who knew how to keep them alive in a glass phial; each of those little animals wore a helmet, their bodies were covered by a breastplate; they had vambraces, knee-pieces, and a spear at their side; their accoutrements were quite perfect, and thus they skipped and jumped about in their bottle. Fancy a man of the size of Mount Athos, and why not? Would a soul be puzzled to animate such a body, for it would have plenty of room to move about in? If such a manʼs sight were piercing enough to discover you somewhere upon earth, with your offensive and defensive arms, what do you think would be his opinion of a parcel of little marmosets thus equipped, and of what you call war, cavalry, infantry, a memorable siege, a famous battle? Shall I never hear any other sound buzz in my ears? Is the world only filled with regiments and companies? Has everything been changed to battalions and squadrons? – He takes a town, then a second, then a third; he wins a battle, two battles, he drives away the enemy, he conquers by sea, by land. – Do you say these things of one of you, or of a giant, a Mount Athos? There is a remarkable man amongst you, pale and livid, with not ten ounces of flesh on his bones, and who would be blown down by the least gust of wind, one would think, and yet he makes more noise than half-a-dozen men, and sets everything in a blaze; he has just now been fishing in troubled waters, and caught a whole island at once; in another place, it is true, he is beaten and pursued, but escapes into the bogs, and will hearken neither to peace nor to truce. He began betimes to show what he could do, and so severely bit his nurseʼs breast that the poor woman died of it; I know what I mean, and that is sufficient. To conclude: he was born a subject and is no longer one; on the contrary, he is now the master, and those whom he has overcome and brought under his yoke are harnessed to the plough and till the ground with might and main; those good people seem even afraid of being unyoked one day and of becoming free, for they have pulled out the thong and lengthened the handle of the whip of the man who drives them; they forget nothing that can increase their slavery; they let him cross the water so that he may get new vassals and acquire fresh territories; and to succeed in this he has, it is true, only to take his father and mother by the shoulders and throw them out of doors, and they aid him in this virtuous undertaking. The people on this side and that side of the water subscribe, and each pays his share, to render him every day more and more formidable to all; the Picts and the Saxons compel the Batavians to be silent, and the latter act in the same manner to the Picts and Saxons; they may all boast of being his humble slaves, as they wished to be. But what do I hear of certain personages who wear crowns? I do not mean counts or marquesses, who swarm on this earth, but princes and sovereigns. This man does but whistle, and they come at his call; they uncover as soon as they are in his anteroom, and never speak but when he asks them a question. Are these the same princes who cavil so much and are so precise about rank and precedence, and who spend whole months in regulating such questions whilst some Diet is assembled? What shall this new ruler do to reward so blind a submission, and to satisfy the high opinion they have of him? If a battle is to be fought, he must win it, and in person; if the enemy besieges a town, he must go raise the siege and drive him away with ignominy, unless the ocean be between him and the enemy; it is the least he can do to please his courtiers. Cæsar himself comes and swells their number; at least he expects important services from him; for either the “archon” and his allies will fail, which is more difficult than impossible to conceive, or, if he succeeds, and nothing resists him, he is ready with his allies, who are jealous of Cæsarʼs religion and greatness, to rush upon him, snatch away his eagle, and reduce him and his heir to the “fasces argent” and to his hereditary dominions. But there is no use saying anything more; they have all voluntarily given themselves up to the man whom they should perhaps have distrusted the most. Would Esop not have told them that “the feathered tribe of a certain country got alarmed and frightened at being near a lion, whose mere roar terrified them; they went to the animal, who persuaded them he would come to some arrangement, and take them under his protection. The end of it was that he gobbled them all up one after another.”

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